Music is important. This much we can all agree upon. But lyrics? That tends to be a matter of great debate. Staff writer Brennan is here to argue that lyrics can and should be valuable to all appreciators of music, not just teenage girls and hippies obsessed with Bob Dylan. To that end, and at the risk of exposing his nerdy obsession with words, Brennan will be using our newest feature, The Lyricist, to illuminate some of the hidden gems and epic failures of the modern art of lyricism. Today’s installment: ‘One Foot’ from fun.’s Some Nights.
I’m standing in Brooklyn, just waiting for something to happen.
I can’t help but look, thinking that everyone doesn’t get it.
To my left there’s a window; where did I go?
My reflection just blends into rows of coats and bad ideas,
but ideas nonetheless, and so
I’ll put one foot in front of the other one. (Oh oh oh!)
I don’t need a new love or a new life,
just a better place to die.
I happened to stumble upon a chapel last night.
And I can’t help but back up when I think of what happens inside.
I’ve got friends locked in boxes; that’s no way to live.
What you’re calling a sin isn’t up to them.
After all, (after all) I thought we were all your children.
But I will die for my own sins, thanks a lot.
We’ll rise up ourselves, thanks for nothing at all.
So up off the ground – our forefathers are nothing but dust now.
[chorus repeats x2]
Maybe I should learn to shut my mouth.
I am over twenty-five and I can’t make a name for myself,
some nights I break down and cry.
I’m lucky that my father’s still alive, he’s been fighting all his life.
And if this is all I’ve ever known, then may his soul live on forever in my song.
[chorus repeats x3]
Depending on your personal artistic belief structure, the suggestion that poetry and lyrics are very similar will inspire either apathetic acceptance or abject horror. Regardless of whether or not you find that comparison to be patently obvious or wildly upsetting doesn’t change the fact that, structurally at least, lyrics are very similar to poetry except for one significant, obvious, and yet oft-overlooked difference: unlike the poet, in addition to words, the lyricist gets to use music.
It follows then, that if we accept that all written expression aims to achieve some communicative goal (and, really, if you don’t accept this then do yourself a favor and stop reading now), then the only true difference between lyrics, poetry, novels, short stories, television shows, movie scripts, and just about anything else that uses words to achieve its aims is the number and kind of tools at the creator’s disposal. So, in the same way that a film critic might analyse a director’s use of visuals in juxtaposition to an actor’s lines, and just as poetic form needs to be considered in relation to poetic content, it’s reasonable to base some of our lyrical analysis on what the auditory experience of a song communicates.
Which brings me to Nate Ruess and fun.’s ‘One Foot.’ Ruess has a long history as an honest and witty lyricist,1 and his musical prowess is frequently a fundamental part of his narrative technique.2 ‘One Foot’ is exactly this kind of song. Ruess presents the listener with a set of lyrics that would be interesting on their own, but which I think have to be viewed within their sonic context for their true value to be appreciated.
First some musical background to aid our understanding: ‘One Foot’ is built upon a single repetitive line of instrumentation. The entire song, save for two short moments that we will get to later, is made up of two whole notes and four quarter notes of big band sound that would be perfectly at home in an east coast hip-hop sample. The song’s focal point is the oft-repeated and intentionally overdone chorus, whose “Oh oh oh!” is perhaps the single most generic hip-hop-influenced passage to make its way into a pop song since Good Charlotte’s regrettable “That’s the anthem, get your damn hands up.” The tone is, ostensibly, one of comical youth and rebelliousness. It’s the kind of song – sonically, at least – that is meant to inspire shouting along with friends on a Friday night. With the exception of a short-lived key change for the final chorus (which still features the same phrasing as the other choruses), ‘One Foot’s only notable departure from that repetitive instrumentation occurs in a verse/pseudo-bridge near the song’s end. That unyielding constancy – which borders on redundancy – can seem at first glance to be nothing more than laziness, but it becomes important when viewed in conjunction with the song’s lyrics.
The most prominent of the song’s lyrics is the choral refrain of, “I put one foot in front of the other one. I don’t need a new love or a new life, just a better place to die.” In the musical context of the chorus (pounding and bombastic), these lines would seem to depict the narrator as a strong-willed survivor type, and the narrator’s claim of defiance appears to be in accordance with the aforementioned rebellious sentiment of the music. That youthful feeling is also communicated in the first verse, wherein the narrator is revealed to feel perfectly confused – that is, adolescent. He feels simultaneously isolated (“everyone doesn’t get it”) and marginalized (“my reflection just blends into rows of coats and bad ideas”) and in response, he decides to just plow ahead and see what happens (“but ideas nonetheless, and so…”).
In the second verse, the narrator appears to have matured a bit, but the tone of youthful rebellion is ultimately preserved. Here, the narrator tackles the religious debate over homosexuality, but despite the tough subject matter, he faces it with typical adolescent snark: “What you call a sin isn’t up to them. After all, I thought we were all your children.” Then out comes the motivational anthem: “We’ll rise up ourselves, thanks for nothing at all. So up off the ground – our forefathers are nothing but dust now.” It’s almost a battle cry, a plea to embrace modernity and equality and to distance ourselves from a history of bigotry that is propagated solely as tradition. Almost. Our narrator provides no direction. He calls for action and change but gives no indication of how that might be done. Instead, after this rousing speech, the chorus stomps through another batch of negativity (“just a better place to die!”) and any fight is sapped from our narrator.
The third and final verse, which acts as a bridge, is a resignation. In it the narrator accepts that he needs to stop being upset about things that he can’t control and be thankful for the good fortune that he’s had; to be thankful that things aren’t worse (“I’m lucky that my father’s still alive”). This is positive, in a melancholy way. It even shows a little bit more maturity. And yet, despite this fleeting moment of grounded wisdom, the song isn’t really about growing up and finding the silver linings in your problems. “Oh oh oh!” isn’t grown up. “Just a better place to die” isn’t mature. These are young, idealistic, all-or-nothing type gambits. And in realizing that, we begin to see the truth in ‘One Foot.’
While the words alone might suggest otherwise, the combination of ‘One Foot’s lyrics and its music seem to state that we live in a world that’s pretty shitty and that there’s nothing we can do about it. The narrator suggests that we – and any listener with any sense of individuality – are made nameless and faceless by the rushing, uniform flow of the modern world. That being different is a sin and that institutionalized evil will always be allowed to prosper at the cost of unmaintainable decency. This is a song about anger, frustration, and disillusionment; the feelings the narrator – and any maturing person – feels when they realize that the world can be a terrible place and that it’s very unlikely that they’ll be able to change that. The world is a flowing river, the narrator tells us, and even though you may want to change its course, you’re only a small stone. You can’t alter the flow. You can only pick where to impotently fall.
That the nihilism of ‘One Foot’s choral lyrics is mirrored in the unyielding constancy of the song’s sonic construction is crucial to a lyrical analysis of the song. That uniform structure leads to a musical sense of fatalism. The final verse/bridge’s lyrics – the pinnacle of hopefulness in the song – gets submarined by an old writer’s axiom: Show, don’t tell. Ruess’s lyrics are telling us first to fight and then to be thankful. That’s what the narrator is telling us. But what the song shows us? It’s more of the same. It’s endless monotony. It’s the crushing, stomping beat of a chorus that just keeps coming back no matter what you do or say. And it’s tough to feel optimistic – even during that one hopeful bridge – when the entire song is lyrically and sonically suggesting that the world is just one big fucked up loop and that the best you can do is try to find “a better place to die.”
Though I think a strong case could be made that Ruess’s intent was for the song to be uplifting and positive, I don’t believe that’s where ‘One Foot’ ends up. As I’ve noted before, what an author intends and what they achieve are rarely the same thing. With all this in mind, it’s difficult to take much hope away from that bridge. After a first verse that describes how easy it is to become a lost soul, a second verse that pleads with the listener to find themselves, stand up, and fight, and a final verse/bridge that suggests that maybe we should just be thankful for what we have – that when things could be worse we should simply celebrate that they’re not – the truth of ‘One Foot’ is revealed in its closing. All of the earnest optimism of the final verse/bridge? It’s crushed almost immediately by more of the same tired beat that we’ve heard for the whole song. It loses. The chorus comes stomping back. Monotony and conformity win. All we can hope for is a better place to die.
And now, to lighten the mood, I give you a mouse riding a toad.
1. “The thought of death, it scares me to death and I don’t know. Yeah, I don’t know. It’s just too much to never wake up.” Those lines, penned by Ruess for The Format’s ‘Wait, Wait, Wait,’ are so brilliantly conversational and accurate and potent – and combine so well with the nonchalant joyousness of their adjoining instrumentation – that it’s hard not to love them. This is what honesty sounds like. As a more recent representation of Ruess’s lyrical prowess, I’m partial to the opening lines of ‘Stars’ which read, “This growing old is getting old. I often find myself here thinking about the birds, the boats, and past loves that flew away or started sinking.” What he’s describing is a decidedly late-twenties problem, but – again – is described so well, so accurately, and with such beautiful flow when viewed with its underlying tune, that I can’t help but love it.
2. One of the primary reasons that The Format’s ‘Tie the Rope’ works so well is its masterful use of contrast. It is likely the happiest sounding song about hanging yourself that has ever been written.
Banner image taken from SarahScoop.com
Animal image taken from ynaija.com
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